12-best-brian-wilson-songs

Photo: Takahiro Kyono / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The 12 Best Brian Wilson Songs

From massive hits to experimental pop compositions, Brian Wilson’s music is always thoughtful, idiosyncratic, and as thrilling today as it was in the 1960s.

Happy 80th birthday, Brian Wilson!

12. “Surf City” – Surf City and Other Swingin’ Cities (1963)

Written by Brian Wilson and Jan Berry

The Beach Boys were the first band to give a major voice to surf music, helping spread the surf craze nationally with songs like “Surfin'”, “Surfin’ Safari”, and “Surfin’ USA”. But the first surf song to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart — though written by Wilson — was released by Jan & Dean. The song was also Wilson’s first time topping the charts, causing some friction within the Beach Boys over him giving away what could have been their first number one.

Though Jan & Dean brought a bit more star power to the recording, the song is Wilson through and through. It opens with a vocal hook of “Two girls for every boy” with an unusual chord progression outside of the main key, a trick Wilson continued to employ throughout the first few years of the Beach Boys’ career on songs like “Catch a Wave” and “Hawaii”. And, of course, the vocals throughout, with call and response harmonies and Wilson’s signature falsetto counterpoint in the chorus, are distinctly Beach Boys in style. “Surf City” is not the most interesting song in Wilson’s catalog, but it’s the strongest of his early surf songs, and as his first number one, it maintains a special place in his songwriting legacy.


11. “Darlin'” – Wild Honey (1967)

Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love

“Darlin'” was almost another song that got away from the Beach Boys. After the collapse of SMiLE and Wilson’s decreasing mental stability, the Beach Boys were falling out of relevancy in 1967 as the Beatles passed them by as pop innovators and newer, hipper, sounds were coming into the mainstream. At the time, Wilson started working with a new group called Redwood, who would later become Three Dog Night; he wrote and produced a song of theirs titled “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You Baby”. But when Mike Love and the other Beach Boys heard the recording, they convinced Wilson to give them the song instead. With new lyrics and a revamped song structure, “Darlin'” was recorded for their Wild Honey album and became a modest hit for the group.

Dubious origins aside, it’s one of Wilson’s strongest works for the late ’60s. It embraces a horn-driven Motown soul sound, which works surprisingly well for the group’s vocal harmony style. Carl Wilson’s voice has the right kind of energy to make the lyrics come alive and Wilson’s arrangement ensures that even with the new direction, “Darlin'” still sounds like a Beach Boys track. Most importantly, though, the melody remains one of Wilson’s most elegant to date.


10. “Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel” – Sweet Insanity/Gettin’ in Over My Head (1991)/(2004)

Written by Brian Wilson

“Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel” was originally recorded for Sweet Insanity, an album Wilson was working on in 1991 until the tapes were allegedly stolen. Five of the songs, including “Don’t Let Her Know”, were later re-recorded for Wilson’s 2004 album Gettin’ in Over My Head. In his spotty post-Beach Boys solo career, the song stands out as a moment of true brilliance. It has all the harmonic complexity, melodic beauty, and deeply-personal vulnerability that makes Wilson’s writing so special.

The Sweet Insanity version is filled with dense synth arrangements and programmed drums, an unusual but welcome aesthetic for Wilson. The officially released version returns the song to the chamber-pop style that is more familiar for Wilson, with lush strings and flutes accentuating his intricate web of vocals. He sings about feeling insecure in the beginning of a relationship. The dramatic and passionate music captures his intense emotions and anxieties. As a late-career gem, “Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel” stands out as one of Wilson’s most sophisticated songs.


9. “Isn’t It Time” – That’s Why God Made the Radio (2012)

Written by Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Joe Thomas, Larry Millas, and Jim Peterik

To coincide with the group’s 50th anniversary, the Beach Boys reunited for their first album of new material since 1992’s Summer in Paradise. It was also the first time Wilson had worked with the group since 1988’s Still Cruising, and the first time original member David Marks had appeared on a Beach Boys album since 1963’s Little Deuce Coupe.

The album is a mixed bag, with most of the songs feeling stale and overstuffed, but a few tracks shine through. “Isn’t It Time” has an exciting vitality that makes it one of Wilson’s most memorable late-career tracks.

Driven by pounding piano and ukulele chords grooving with syncopated drums and handclaps, “Isn’t It Time” reminisces on the past and asks, “Isn’t it time we get ready again? / Isn’t it time we go steady again?” Much like their 1968 nostalgia-baiting single “Do It Again”, “Isn’t It Time” pushes the group forward in an exciting way by looking backward. The lead vocal is split between Wilson, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and Mike Love, giving the song a communal spirit and reminding us how powerful their voices are when combined together.


8. “The Little Girl I Once Knew” (1965)

Written by Brian Wilson

Though “The Little Girl I Once Knew” was a decent hit in its time, its status as a standalone single not included on an original Beach Boys album may account for its fading legacy. This is tragic, because it’s the perfect transition track from early Beach Boys to Pet Sounds-era experimentation. Like many of the songs on Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), “The Little Girl I Once Knew” mixes an up-tempo summer sensibility with unusual arrangements and harmonies. Most notably, there is a two-measure pause before each chorus, occupied only by the ringing out of a single vibraphone note. The pause makes the track distinct, and it prevented many radio stations from embracing it, fearing the few seconds of dead air during their broadcasts.

The lyrics of the song may have held it back from being as universally appealing as the similar-sounding “California Girls”, too. Whereas “California Girls” has its problems with objectification, it still comes across as inclusive and jubilant. “The Little Girl I Once Knew” feels more predatory in its excitement for a young girl who’s growing up before your eyes. Still, the intricate arrangement, powerful layers of vocals, and distinctive pre-chorus pause make it a strong stand-out song.


7. “Good Vibrations” – SMiLE/Smiley Smile (1966)

Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love

“Good Vibrations” was recorded in 21 recording sessions over seven months in four different recording studios, costing up to $75,000. This made it not only the most expensive single recorded to date but also the most ambitious. Wilson’s approach to the song, composing small sections that would later be assembled together in a sort of collage, proved to be effective for “Good Vibrations”.

The song was dubbed a “pocket symphony” by publicist Derek Taylor for its contrasting “movements”. Though this compositional process would eventually be the downfall of Wilson’s failed masterpiece SMiLE, “Good Vibrations” continues to be one of the most beloved songs of the ’60s, in spite of — or because of, depending on who you ask — its bizarre structure.

With a theremin hook, prominent cellos, and a bass harmonica, “Good Vibration” is one of Wilson’s most distinct sounding productions. Its influence on the ensuing psychedelic and progressive rock movements can’t be overstated, but its legacy as a pop hit is impressive as well. “Good Vibrations” changed the way a pop record could be made, the way a pop record could sound, and the lyrics a pop record could have. For a band remembered most for fun-in-the-sun surf and car songs, “Good Vibrations” serves as a reminder that the Beach Boys were also one of the most innovative and boundary-pushing groups of their day.


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